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How Umami Works

Adding Umami to Recipes
Mushrooms can be sautéed or roasted to develop their umami notes.
Mushrooms can be sautéed or roasted to develop their umami notes.
© Patrick Pleul/dpa/Corbis

Given its universality, it's no surprise that umami shows up in a world of cuisines, from the Danish smorrebrod (open-faced sandwich) of roast beef and pickles on sourdough rye bread, to the American BLT. Just the same, here are a few culinary tricks to maximize umami:

  • Use the rinds of Parmesan and other aged cheeses in a soup or stew. Drying condenses the glutamate content in the rind [source: Georgia Public Radio].
  • When using tomatoes in cooked dishes, include the jelly, the viscous, seed-containing part. Jelly contains up to four times as much MSG and nucleotides as the flesh [source: McGee]. Seed and roast the tomato flesh in uncooked dishes, such as salads or appetizers [source: Marcus].
  • Caramelize onions. As a bonus, slow-cooking in butter or oil also brings out the veggie's natural sweetness [source: Katz and Edelson].
  • Make stock from animal bones, including fish. If possible, roast the bones first [source: Marcus].
  • Eat active critters. Older hens and cows get a rap for being tough, but exercise requires enzymes to break down and rebuild muscle tissue, which frees amino acids. Likewise, choose distance-swimming fish like tuna and mackerel [source: Marcus].
  • Sauté or roast mushrooms before adding to recipes. Heat treatment brings out the umami notes of mushrooms [source: Katz and Edelson].
  • Cook with wine. As a fermented drink, wine itself provides umami. As an alcohol, it dissolves other foods' flavor molecules, including fats, adding flavor depth and body [source: Marcus].

In cultivating the umami in foods, you may also expand your repertoire of culinary skills. In a sense, you are developing your own personal umami: your ability to coax out and magnify food's natural flavors.